BOOK NOTES - Stories too good to be true may not be

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Have you been fooled by a book that you thought was true? Several books have sold millions of copies and even made the New York Times Best-Sellers list only to be exposed as "less than true" months or even years later.

"The Long Walk" by Slavomir Rawicz (1915-2004) was a sensation when it was published in 1956. It sold over half a million copies and has been translated into 25 languages and is still in print. The author described how, during the Second World War, he and a group of prisoners escaped from a gulag in the Soviet Union in 1941 and walked south from Siberia, through Mongolia, Tibet, across the Himalayas, to the safety of British India -- a trek of 4,000 miles.

Since its publication, a ferocious controversy has raged about whether anyone really could achieve this superhuman feat. Critics particularly questioned one chapter in the book where the walkers apparently see a pair of yetis.

Fifty years later, British journalist Hugh Levinson produced a documentary which investigated the memoir by attempting to track Slavomir Rawicz's life story. Levinson found evidence that although Rawicz was imprisoned in a gulag in Russia, he was released in 1942. Rupert Mayne, a British intelligence officer in wartime India remembers interviewing three emaciated men who claimed to have escaped from Siberia. Mayne believed their story, but could not remember the men's names. Levinson came to the conclusion that someone -- but not Rawicz -- achieved this extraordinary feat.

In January 2011 Peter Weir released the movie, "The Way Back," based on "The Long Walk," staring Colin Farrell, Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris and Saoirse Ronan. Since Rawicz's role in the trek has been discredited, the central character is not called Slavomir Rawicz. Weir states, "There was enough for me to say that three men had come out of the Himalayas, and that's how I dedicate my film, to these unknown survivors. And then I proceed with essentially a fictional film."

"The Education of Little Tree" was written by Asa Earl Carter (1925-1979) under the pseudonym Forrest Carter. This memoir about an orphan boy named Forrest who learns about life from his sage Cherokee grandparents has never been out of print since it was first published in 1976 to rave reviews in the New York Times. The book had sold more than a million copies in hard and soft covers before the University of New Mexico Press started publishing it in 1985. Since then, it has become the biggest seller in the publisher's history, selling more than 1,500,000 copies.

In 1991, 15 years after its publication and 12 years after Carter's death, "Little Tree" won the coveted Abby Award of the American Book Sellers Association and climbed onto the New York Times Best-Sellers list.

It was believed that Carter wrote "The Education of Little Tree" from his childhood memories of his Cherokee uncle, though his brother has said the family has no American Indian members. The publisher's remarks in the original edition of the book inaccurately describe Carter as "Storyteller in Council" to the Cherokee Nation. Many people have been drawn to the author's message of simple living, tradition and love of nature.

However, "The Education of Little Tree" has also been the subject of controversy after the New York Times published an article by Dan T. Carter, a history professor and distant cousin of Asa Carter, titled "The Transformation of a Klansman" on Oct. 4, 1991. Dan Carter stated that Asa had been an active participant in several white supremacist organizations, including the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens' Council. Asa Carter was also a speechwriter for the segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace. The controversy surrounding the story centers on the clash of the factual details depicted in the book with those of the author's life and the book's racial sympathies and the intentions of the author. When Carter's background was widely publicized in 1991, the book was reclassified by the publisher as fiction. Today, a debate continues as to whether the book's lessons are altered by the identity of the author.

"Mutant Message Down Under" tells the story of Marlo Morgan's (1937- ) travels to Australia where she meets a mysterious tribe of Aborigines who take her on a "walkabout" into the outback for months. During her 1,400 mile barefoot trek, she learns a new way of life, including the Aboriginals methods of healing based on the wisdom of their 50,000 year old culture, and experiences a dramatic personal transformation.

The book found an audience among the many readers who responded to Morgan's message of oneness with nature and respect for the indigenous people.

Morgan self-published her tale in 1991 and sold over 250,000 copies -- an amazing number for a self-published book. Publisher Harper Collins picked it up in 1994 and sold a million copies of the book by 1998. "Mutant Message Down Under" spent 31 weeks on the New York Times Best-Sellers List from 1994-95.

However, the Aborigines denied that the author had any knowledge of Aboriginal culture, or any experience of them at all. The Dumbartung Aboriginal Organisation issued a report, after a thorough investigation: "Aboriginal groups believe Ms Morgan's desert journey to be fabricated and that her book and teaching lack credibility. The Dumbartung Aboriginal Organisation stated that it was deeply offensive to Aboriginal people for a white woman to be misrepresenting Aboriginal culture for self-promotion and profit. Aboriginal people expressed anger that Ms. Morgan's false message is being accepted as fact by a naive American and European market and were extremely concerned about the resulting long term implications for their culture."

In 1996 a group of Aboriginal elders, incensed by the book, traveled to the United States to confront Morgan and to stop a Hollywood film being made of the book. The elders obtained an apology from Morgan, and she had no choice but to admit that she had made the whole story up.

In 2004 Harper Collins issued a 10th-anniversary edition of the book; however, since the factual nature of the book has been exposed as false, it is listed as "fiction."

If you read a book that doesn't ring true, be sure to check it out on the Internet. If you've had the experience of finding out a book you believed true turned out to be false, send me a note at bmoats@q.com.

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